Monthly Archives: March 2016

Don’t rush to blame Molenbeek for harbouring Paris attacker

This blog post, by Honorary Research Fellow Bill Tupman explains why we shouldn’t be too quick to blame the district of Molenbeek for the delay in  finding, and arresting Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.

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Bill Tupman, University of Exeter

After 120 days on the run, Salah Abdeslam, accused of being part of the group that carried out the brutal attacks in Paris in November 2015, has finally been arrested.

He was found in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, where he lived and worked before the attacks. Despite countless police raids in recent months, Abdeslam managed to evade capture in his own neighbourhood.

In November 2015, he is suspected of being part of three well-organised groups of jihadists which attacked Paris, including bars, the Bataclan concert hall and the area around the Stade de France. They killed 130 people and most of the attackers also died.

Islamic State claimed a further attack in the 18th Arondissement which didn’t happen. It is not yet clear if this was to be carried out by Abdeslam.

He claims that he was going to blow himself up in the Stade de France, but changed his mind. One final attacker, Mohamed Abrini, remains on the run.

Hiding in plain sight

Salah Abdeslam’s brother, Brahim, was one of the Paris attackers who blew himself up near a café on Boulevard Voltaire. Acquaintances claim that both drank alcohol and sold drugs, were not known as regular attenders at the mosque, and had a background in petty crime.

Salah Abdeslam.
EPA/French Ministry of the Interior

Newspapers and anonymous “officials” have branded Molenbeek with a number of alarmist epithets. It’s a “terror capital”, a “jihadi breeding ground” and so on. It is a district of 100,000 people, with high rates of unemployment, especially among its young, multi-ethnic locals. It is home to a transient population.

Criminologists of the 1930s Chicago School would recognise Molenbeek immediately. This is a place where community institutions are dislocated, and where the unemployed can choose between drug addiction and a criminal career. The normal choice of rackets – drug dealing, confidence trickstering, prostitution, burglary and violence – have been joined by a new greasy pole: jihadism.

It is not Islam that is the problem in Molenbeek, but unemployment and poverty. It is difficult to police because young people move flats all the time and civil society is patchy. There are few genuine community leaders with whom these young people can work when they need support.

In such a district, it is not really surprising that it has taken so long to find Abdeslam. Partners for the police are hard to find. It’s not hard to imagine why his associates would have decided to shelter him rather than report him.

The more important question is how the whole network managed to evade detection before the attack. How much was this down to the sophistication of their methods and how much was it the result of police failures and open borders?

Highly organised operation

There was a large network behind the Paris attacks, not just the five-participant cell that was characteristic of terrorism in the 1960s and 70s. The New York Times, which has obtained a report by the French police, claims 18 people are in custody in six countries suspected of helping the attackers. This is in addition to the nine who are already dead.

Police in Molenbeek.
EPA/Laurent Dubrule

They were well trained and able to carry out a co-ordinated attack in a number of different places, using both explosives and firearms, taking hostages and effectively confusing and hampering the police response. In the months leading up to the attack, they were able to slip in and out of Europe undetected, crossing both internal and external borders.

No email traces or evidence of online chats have been discovered. The attackers used phones once, then discarded them. In the Bataclan, they used hostages’ phones. They had clearly learnt from police investigations into previous attacks, again suggesting training and discipline.

According to the New York Times, a woman held hostage in the Bataclan saw one of the terrorists switch on a laptop, and that what appeared on the screen looked like gibberish – potentially meaning he was using encryption software.

There are legal and cultural problems with sharing information between security services, both within countries and across borders. There are problems transliterating Arabic names in different systems. There are problems sorting the wheat from the chaff in the intelligence.

It is always possible to recognise relevant intelligence with hindsight, but there are not enough resources to put all suspects under surveillance. It is also probable that individuals with petty criminal backgrounds have not been considered as dangerous as those with hardline ideological commitments.

Consequences for Europeans

The French prosecutor appears suspicious of the testimony Abdeslam has initially given to the Belgian police, given that he appears to have driven some of the attackers to the Stade de France.

It may be that both he and others were intended to survive and continue plans for further attacks, although events suggest improvisation played a part as well as planning. If so, it will be even more vital to discover how his communication systems operated.

There will be increased border checks, including at Schengen internal borders. There will be increased surveillance. There will be increased demands for access to the phone and email records of all citizens. There will be increased roll-out of CCTV across Europe.

But the lesson to learn from all this is that terrorists, just like criminals, change their modus operandi in response to changes by the security forces. The rest of us get inconvenienced, not the terrorists. The need is to keep the public onside – and not to further alienate marginal communities like Molenbeek.

The Conversation

Bill Tupman, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Planning for the referendum and after: Lessons from 1975

In this blog, Dr David Thackeray – a senior lecturer in the College of Humanities, looks at the difference between the current referendum and the on held in 1975; what lessons have we learned in the last 41 years, and how will this referendum approach things differently?

This post first appeared on the History and Policy site.


Forty-one years ago this month, James Callaghan finalised the renegotiation of Britain’s EEC membership at a Dublin meeting of the European Council. At the subsequent referendum the results were emphatic. The UK voted ‘yes’ to remaining in the EEC, the forerunner of today’s EU, by a two to one margin. Now with the EU referendum date set, this article considers the key differences between the 1975 and 2016 votes and the lessons of the 1975 renegotiation for policy-makers planning for the vote and its aftermath.

The first striking difference between the 1975 and 2016 referendums is the wording of the question which voters are being asked. In September David Cameron accepted a recommendation by the Electoral Commission that voters be directly asked whether they wish to stay in or leave the EU. This marks a radical departure from the precedent of the 1975 referendum. Significantly, opinion polls from the time suggested that many Britons were unhappy with various aspects of EEC membership, however they were willing to support continued membership on the terms proposed: ‘Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)’. Interestingly, the Cameron government’s original preferred wording for the upcoming referendum closely resembled that chosen by Harold Wilson in 1975.

The 1975 referendum demonstrates the importance of how the European question is framed in another way. Britain’s recent renegotiation of its terms of membership was mentioned at the top of the ballot paper and appears to have been a vote-winner. Gallup polls held before the renegotiation suggested willingness to support new terms of membership. The ‘yes’ majority widened significantly after the final renegotiation talks, with the Yes camp enjoying at least a sixteen per cent majority among decided voters for the final three months of the campaign. With supporters of continued EU membership enjoying no such advantage today, the renegotiation terms are likely to be a major area of contention over coming weeks and the Yes campaign will need to make a clear case for the value of the new terms.


Given the current uncertainty over the likely referendum result, contingency planning to meet the various outcomes will also be a key concern over coming months. Former cabinet secretary Gus O’ Donnell has recently commented that it is likely that civil servants are ‘mentally’ carrying out work in preparation for a potential British exit. Interestingly, the Cabinet Office, Treasury and Foreign Office were involved in substantial planning for a British exit in 1975. At the time, there was particular anxiety about how a British exit might affect the stability of the EEC. Civil servants expected that Denmark might join the UK in leaving and worried that bilateral relations with the Republic of Ireland would be complicated, potentially exacerbating problems in Northern Ireland.

Much of the contingency planning in 1975 focused on the complexities of leaving the EEC, for which there was no precedent. A Treasury memo. produced at the time claimed that ‘a swift withdrawal is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with the facts of international political life’. Some ministers publicly called for a withdrawal from the Community no later than 1 January 1976. And yet, behind the scenes, civil servants raised concerns about the viability of negotiating an early exit, which largely relied on the goodwill of other EEC members. If the January deadline was not met then Britain’s budget commitments of £200 million would likely have remained in place for another year. It was hoped that a treaty of withdrawal could be kept as short as possible, with more complex aspects of Britain’s future trading arrangements to be settled afterwards. Whilst Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) includes a clause for Member States to voluntarily withdraw from the EU, the growth of this organisation’s functions over recent decades means that the procedure for Brexit remains highly complex.

In many ways the stakes of voting on EU membership are higher now than in 1975. Indeed, the wording of the referendum ballot paper means that voters will be given a specific ‘in-out’ question on membership for the first time. Convincing voters to support the renegotiation terms may also be harder now. In 1975 Britain had only been a member of the EEC for two years and was economically ‘the sick man of Europe’, having been particularly badly hit by the oil price spike of 1973-74. Many voters were dissatisfied with aspects of Britain’s EEC membership but willing to endorse it for fear that exit would leave the UK internationally isolated. By contrast, developing links with emerging markets like China and India is today commonly seen as crucial to Britain’s future economic growth and the problems of the Eurozone have tempered the appeal of the EU as an economic unit.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming referendum, and with the UK’s next presidency of the EU due to begin in July 2017, the nation’s shifting relationship with Europe is due to be a key matter of interest for some time to come.

Budget 2016: experts respond

What will Chancellor George Osborne’s 2016 mean for business, economy, education and healthcare? Professor John Maloney,  an Associate Professor of Economics in University of Exeter Business School  joins a panel of academics, to discuss the impact of the budget.

This post first appeared in The Conversation.Conversation logo

Geraint Johnes, Lancaster University; Alan Shipman, The Open University; Andrew Street, University of York; Anya Ahmed, University of Salford; Daniel Muijs, University of Southampton; David Eiser, University of Stirling; Eoin Flaherty, Queen’s University Belfast; Gavin Midgley, University of Southampton; John Maloney, University of Exeter; John Van Reenen, London School of Economics and Political Science; Jonquil Lowe, The Open University, and Stephen Roper, University of Warwick

Chancellor George Osborne has delivered his eighth budget. Here our panellists give their take on what it means for the economy, business, healthcare and education. Stay tuned for further updates, and follow @ConversationUK on Twitter.


John Van Reenen, professor of economics, London School of Economics

Four months is a long time in economics. When “Lucky George” delivered the Autumn Statement he had enough fiscal good news to abandon plans to radically reduce tax credits to the low paid.

Unfortunately, the bad news has come thick and fast since then, causing a downgrade in the growth forecasts in today’s budget. For example, the 2016 forecast has been cut from 2.4% to 2.0%. But even worse than this was the Office for National Statistics’ discovery that GDP in cash terms was £18 billion – smaller it they had previously thought. This means fewer tax revenues are forecast to come in over the next five years.

The Chancellor made three fiscal pledges to cap welfare, reduce debt as a share of GDP and deliver a budget surplus by 2019-20. The first two promises are out of the window, so to avoid missing the third, he announced additional spending cuts of £3.5 billion. These are all pencilled in for the end of the parliament and Osborne is hoping that his luck will return, so they never have to be made.

But austerity upon more austerity raises the question of whether there is an alternative to the medicine of more cuts. The answer is yes.

The pledge to have a 1% surplus by 2020 makes little economic sense. It is calculated as tax receipts minus total public spending. And this is not just current spending on things such as ministers’ salaries, but also capital spending on infrastructure projects like High Speed 3 and Crossrail 2. I strongly support these investments and the National Infrastructure Commission which has been pushing them.

But why must such infrastructure projects be financed just by sales of public land and other government assets? The fiscal target should be on balancing the books on current spending over the business cycle – just as it was when the Office of Budget Responsibility was first set up in 2010. Otherwise there will always be too much pressure to under-fund public investment.

John Maloney, associate professor of economics, University of Exeter

The economy has turned down, only slightly, but the growth forecasts are down for the next four years too, and that does make a difference. Downturns in the economy will mean tax receipts disappoint. In this situation a chancellor can do one of three things. He can cut spending or raise tax rates to put the deficit back on course. He can make the downturn itself his priority and cut taxes, or increase spending to get the economy moving again. Or he can shrug and do nothing. Roughly speaking Osborne cut at the beginning of the last parliament and shrugged at the end.

This time it looks as if it will be the other way round: 2019-20 is the year when a £20 billion deficit is now forecast to turn round into a £10 billion surplus. Until then there will be plenty of austerity for some – including the disabled – but this is far from an austerity budget. Given the Office of Budget Responsibility is now forecasting a lower national debt (though higher as a share of a smaller-then-expected national income) this isn’t a surprise.


Anya Ahmed, senior lecturer in social policy, University of Salford

The budget reflects the Conservatives’ long term policy commitment to increasing owner-occupied housing. Young people were encouraged to save to buy their own home through the introduction of Lifetime ISAs, and more land was released for developments to sell to first-time buyers.

The chancellor also pledged £120m to tackle homelessness. The priority is to address rough sleeping, which has doubled since 2010.

But homelessness extends beyond rough sleeping. And long-term solutions like affordable rented housing – historically provided by local authorities or housing associations – are vital to addressing this issue. Yet on the matter of social housing, Osborne was largely silent – aside from a pledge to delay imposing the benefit cap on supported accommodation until next year.


Andrew Street, professor of health economics, University of York

The government is implementing sugar taxes on soft drinks as recommended by Public Health England in its October 2015 report on Sugar Reduction.

Consuming too much sugar causes tooth decay and leads to weight gain, increasing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. Taxing soft drinks appears an effective preventive measure. Such taxes have been introduced in Brazil, France, Mexico and parts of the US and evidence suggests they are effective at reducing obesity, either through reduced consumption or switches to less sugary drinks.

Can’t beat the feeling – of a hefty levy on sugary drinks.
Ken, CC BY

The sugar tax will be implemented in two years, allowing the industry time to reduce sugar content. There will be two tax bands, at 5g/100g and 8g/100g. Milk and pure fruit juices are exempt, as will be smaller producers.

The tax is expected to raise £520m a year. This money will be channelled to schools to support out-of-school sports activities. Surprisingly, there is little evidence that physical education classes have a detectable impact on weight among children, perhaps because these substitute alternative forms of physical activity. But enabling children to do physical exercise is a good thing in itself, irrespective of the effect it might have on weight.


Geraint Johnes, professor of economics, Lancaster University

The Chancellor’s announcements on transport infrastructure in the north come after the publication of a report by the National Infrastructure Commission earlier in the week. The commission suggests that the productivity impact of improved rail links within the Northern Powerhouse could – on a cautious estimate – add some £189m a year to earnings across the UK. Improved road links and metropolitan transport within each of the constituent cities should add further to this gain.

His reference to the forthcoming Crossrail 2 also follows another report from the NIC. A key consideration here is to provide transport infrastructure for areas where housing for the rapidly expanding capital will be developed. This will have substantial knock-on effects for the construction industry, and increase the capacity of London to grow.

Building links across Britain.
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Many of the measures announced in the budget have been heralded previously, but the renewed commitment to the Northern Powerhouse is particularly welcome. It is critical, though, that the Chancellor releases funding for the electrification programme, for HS3, and for further road improvements quickly.

He can do this because the government can borrow for investment at historically low rates of interest. He should do it because the fragile state of the global economy calls on government to respond by providing a stimulus through responsible investment. The Northern Powerhouse has captured imaginations, but now people are impatient to see the dream become reality.


Stephen Roper, professor of enterprise, University of Warwick

Against a backdrop of continuing austerity at home and political and economic uncertainty across Europe, Osborne announced significant measures to reduce costs for the UK’s smallest firms. Changes to the small business rate relief will mean around 600,000 of the UK’s smallest businesses will pay no business rates in the future and increases in higher rate bands will reduce rates for around one in six of all UK businesses with employees.

Rates for small businesses, like barbers, have been snipped.
Anne Wuyats, CC BY

These changes make a welcome contribution to supporting micro-businesses across the UK’s high streets. Taking cost out of these micro firms is helpful. The key question for future growth is whether the savings are ploughed back into the businesses.

Other budget announcements will also be important for small firms in specific sectors. The freeze on fuel duty will be a relief to those firms operating in the logistics and transport sectors and firms in the hospitality sector will also welcome the freezing of duties on most types of alcoholic drinks.

Gavin Midgley, teaching fellow in accounting, University of Southampton

In many aspects, the budget delivered by Osborne was full of ambition and the measures proposed on business taxes were no exception. The chancellor made it clear that to fund the giveaways for small businesses and individuals, additional revenues will need to be raised from big corporations.

To achieve this, there will be further cuts to Corporation Tax (to be decreased to 19% in 2017, then as announced today, down to 17% in 2020). This will attract large companies to invest and operate in the UK.

A raft of measures that aim to reduce tax avoidance were also announced. Restricting the level of tax relief on interest payments due to borrowing is particularly welcome. At this stage it is difficult to judge how successful these measures will be, especially as the details on the level of cost to detect and enforce them is still unknown. But the publication of a Business Tax Roadmap is a definite step in the right direction as it signals a real commitment to dealing with these issues as well as offering guidance to those affected.


Alan Shipman, lecturer in economics, The Open University

A new Help-to-Save scheme was well-trailed before the budget. Targeting low-earners, the prospect of doubling your money if you can save up to £600 over two years, and repeating the feat two years later, will undoubtedly appeal.

But many will struggle to save these amounts. OBR forecasts show average house price inflation staying above 5% in the next five years, and growth rates of personal disposable income halving from 2.9% in 2015 to just 1.5% in 2019 and 2020. This may coincide with end-of-term austerity as the government seeks to turn the projected £21.4 billion public-sector deficit in 2018-19 into a £10.4 billion surplus in 2019-20.

As it swells the savings of those who can make them and does nothing for those who can’t, the scheme won’t necessarily reduce inequality. And some households may pursue the saving subsidy by neglecting to pay down costlier debt – giving a bigger bonus to credit card and doorstep loan companies.


Jonquil Lowe, lecturer in personal finance, The Open University

When is a U-turn not a U-turn? Days before the budget, the Chancellor announced that plans to replace pensions with individual savings accounts (ISAs) had been axed. But what are in effect pension ISAs – now rebranded the Lifetime ISA – have jumped out of the budget hat. Available from April 2017 they are a new optional way for the under-40s to save. In effect, younger generations will decide whether traditional pension schemes carry on long-term or wither on the vine.

A major difference from the axed proposal is that lifetime ISAs can be used for buying a first home, not just retirement – similar to the New Zealand Kiwi-Saver scheme. The new Lifetime ISA can be opened by anyone aged 18 to 40. On contributions up to £4,000 a year, the government will add a 25% bonus – the same tax relief a basic-rate taxpayer would get on pension contributions.


Eoin Flaherty, lecturer in sociology, Queen’s University Belfast

Compared to 2015, the changes set out in this year’s budget are more insidious and subtle in their execution. The most significant details, in terms of their implications for public welfare, are those related to the tax base.

Osborne has proposed a reduction in capital gains tax from 28% to 20%, a reduction of corporation tax to 17%, and a raising of the higher income tax threshold to £45,000. These are prime measures for raising inequality even further, by shifting the tax burden onto labour.

Lower corporation tax rates simply incentivise large multinationals to indulge in creative accounting. This does little to help grow the economy, and the prospect of job creation resulting from this measure is very much open to question.

Meanwhile, lower capital gains rates will benefit those top earners who derive their income principally from “rentier” sources, such as financial trading and property.

Measures such as the sugar tax, although welcome for public health, will disproportionately affect the poor, who end up paying a greater proportion of their income on indirect taxes.

The announcement of lifetime ISAs for the under 40s is also worrying. With growth revised downward, and little offered in this budget to enhance the income security of workers already threatened with insecure contracts, low wages, and in-work poverty, the offer of ISAs without the prospect of real income growth is meaningless.


Daniel Muijs, head of leadership, School Improvement and Effectiveness Research Centre, University of Southampton

The chancellor’s push to convert all schools to academies by 2020 is a continuation of a longstanding Conservative policy to give schools more autonomy.

Just paint everything blue.
PA/Peter Macdiarmid

The aim is to have totally transformed the schools landscape by the time the next election comes along, finally taking local authorities out of running schools altogether. In the secondary sector, just under two thirds are now academies – 2,075 out of 3,381. The picture in primary is quite different, as only around 15% of primary schools are currently academies. Converting all of them will be a huge task, not least for the Department for Education in managing the process.


David Eiser, research fellow in economics, Stirling University

The introduction of a tax on sugary drinks, which will raise around £0.5 billion, will be welcomed by the health lobby. It seems likely that Scottish taxpayers may contribute a disproportionately high share of this new tax, given higher consumption of sugary drinks, but the Scottish government will receive only a population share of the UK-wide revenues (through the Barnett formula).

Reductions in taxation of North Sea revenues were cautiously welcomed by the SNP, but were partly a political stunt by the chancellor, allowing him to make vitriolic statements about the pooling and sharing of risks. The OBR forecasts that the price of oil will remain around US$40 per barrel over the course of the parliament, with North Sea activity bringing very little revenue to the Treasury. As a result, the cuts cost the Treasury around £200m a year.

Changes to income tax include the much trailed increase to the personal allowance and the rise in the higher-rate threshold. Both are tax cuts and benefit higher earners more than lower earners. Of course by 2017, income tax will be devolved to the Scottish parliament. But while Holyrood could decide to reverse the increase in the higher-rate threshold, it will not have the power to reduce the increase in the personal allowance even if it wanted to.

The chancellor also announced cuts to business rates, particularly for smaller businesses, while at the same time devolving the revenues to local authorities. While this policy is applicable to England only, the next Scottish government is likely to face pressure to follow suit.

The Conversation

Geraint Johnes, Professor of Economics, Lancaster University; Alan Shipman, Lecturer in Economics, The Open University; Andrew Street, Professor, Centre for Health Economics, University of York; Anya Ahmed, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, University of Salford; Daniel Muijs, Director of Research and Deputy Head of Southampton Education School, University of Southampton; David Eiser, Research Fellow, Economics , University of Stirling; Eoin Flaherty, Lecturer in Sociology, Queen’s University Belfast; Gavin Midgley, Teaching Fellow in Accounting, University of Southampton; John Maloney, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Exeter; John Van Reenen, Director, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science; Jonquil Lowe, Lecturer in Personal Finance, The Open University, and Stephen Roper, Professor of Enterprise and Director of the Enterprise Research Centre, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A week with AstraZeneca

Emily Lomax, a student in the University of Exeter Medical School‘s Medical Sciences programme, was one of five Exeter students to be offered a week’s placement at global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. Here she tell us all about it…

Recently, I was lucky enough to be offered one of the first ever University of Exeter placement weeks at AstraZeneca (AZ). The agenda looked really interesting. I looked forward to all the activities, which involved visiting various sites around the country, to see the entire drug development process from research and development to a new drug being available to the public.

At the start of the week we spent two days in Cambridge where we visited the cancer research building where AZ is currently renting space as their new site, next to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, is under construction. Here we learnt about the research and development of a drug. We met a scientist, Alan Lau, who has had a fascinating career working on a drug called Olaparib. He has been involved from the very beginning of the research right up to the drug’s license to be sold. This is a true example of ‘following the science’.

Cancer research building in Cambridge

Cancer research building in Cambridge

Next, we headed north to visit the Macclesfield site in Cheshire. We had an amazing opportunity to visit the Zoladex manufacturing plant. It is unusual for AZ to still be manufacturing Zoladex, but other companies that have tried haven’t been able to create the protective needle sleeve with which Zoladex is administered to the same standard. Therefore, AZ has continued its production.

We had strict dress guidelines due to the importance of sterility; this included no make-up and jewellery, sterile coveralls and sterile overshoes. In retrospect I am not at all surprised by the safety measures but at the time it was quite unbelievable and exciting to see the scientists wearing the sterile coveralls and masks, probably because I hadn’t seen anything like this before.

We spent the second half of the day on the Alderley Park site. We met Jannine Green, a biospecimen scientist. This is a job I had never heard of before. It involves organising clinical trials to ensure countries participating in the trial have correct quantities of the drug; practitioners know how to store the drug and take biopsy samples. This really highlighted the importance of co-ordination and communication, even more so in a global company.

Alderley Park site

Alderley Park site

We spent our last two days at the UK marketing company in Luton. As a scientist who enjoys lab work, I initially thought this wouldn’t appeal to me as much as the previous days. But I was pleasantly surprised at how interesting this side of AZ is. It made me realise the huge scale of AZ and how it truly is a global company. I discovered jobs I never knew existed, such as medical information and regulatory affairs.

I feel very grateful for this opportunity as it has opened my eyes to the scale of AZ and the importance of the massive range of roles and how they work together. Although after a very exciting week I am not completely certain about what specific career path to take, I feel reassured by the huge variety of options and I am sure that whichever I do choose I will thoroughly enjoy it.

Group picture of University of Exeter students. Emily Lomax, Zeeshan Rahman, Shayin Gibson, Jack Richards, Hannah Nicholls

Group picture of University of Exeter students. Emily Lomax, Zeeshan Rahman, Shayin Gibson, Jack Richards, Hannah Nicholls

Dartmoor bird research: Bringing together Exeter researchers and local birders

Sara Zonneveld is a PhD researcher in Biosciences, she is working as part of the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group to build a better understanding of the breeding ecology of ground-nesting birds and Cuckoos on Dartmoor. Sara and the group are using this information to support the conservation of birds on Dartmoor and beyond. Sara explained more about the work…

Our research team consists of Professor Charles Tyler, and two PhD students (Lowell Mills and I). However, we are not just a team of scientists. The Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group is a collaboration between University of Exeter scientists and local volunteers which was formed in 2008 when Charles met two volunteer bird nest recorders on Dartmoor.

They all had a shared interest in the birds and habitats of Dartmoor, and from their friendship the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group was formed. Over the years, more people joined, making up the diverse team of researchers and local birders that form our group today.

The research we do is dependent on detailed bird breeding data, such as the timing of breeding, breeding success and breeding locations. This information is recorded by finding and monitoring nests, a task that requires an incredible amount of field skills and knowledge of bird behaviour. The nest recorders in the Dartmoor Upland Bird Nest Group are highly skilled local birders and volunteer nest recorders, who together have decades of experience in monitoring bird nests.

Over the past eight years, these volunteers have monitored more than 1,300 nests of 30 plus species on our 2km² study site. At the University we use this data to research the breeding dynamics and breeding requirements of our charismatic Dartmoor upland bird community. One of our main research topics focuses on the Meadow Pipit and Cuckoo, studying their breeding, diet and habitat use. Additionally, we aim to understand at which time of the year disturbance needs to be reduced to allow ground-nesting birds to breed successfully.

Our group now also works closely together with other organisations. Nationally, all our nest data is shared with the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Record Scheme. Locally, we work closely with both Devon Birds and the Dartmoor National Park Authority to help grow our research and communicate our findings.

Our project highlights the importance of skilled volunteers and local support in facilitating scientific research. None of our Dartmoor bird research would have been possible without the dedicated volunteers in our group. In addition to collecting much-needed data, our volunteers provide us with important insights in bird behaviour and pass on their valuable field skills. The passion and knowledge of these local birders drives the research that our team is able to do here at the University of Exeter.

Although our field-work has been volunteer-run for the past eight years, there are equipment costs and running expenses that need to be covered. To be able to expand our project and collect more data to address crucial bird conservation questions, we are currently crowdfunding to support our fieldwork for the 2016 season. Any help would be greatly appreciated, please find out more on our crowdfunding website.

Why life is tougher for short men and overweight women

Timothy Frayling, University of Exeter and Jessica Tyrrell, University of Exeter

Are you a short man or an overweight woman? If so, you may have a slight disadvantage in life compared with taller men and thinner women.

Our latest study has found evidence that men who are shorter due to their genes have lower incomes, lower levels of education, and lowlier occupations than their taller counterparts. The effect of height on socioeconomic status was much weaker in women. In contrast, women who have a higher body mass index (BMI) due to their genes have lower standards of living and household incomes. Having a higher BMI didn’t seem to have the same negative effect on men.

Don’t we know this stuff already?

Why did we want to do this study? After all, didn’t we know that height and BMI are associated with socioeconomic status? And you can’t change your genes, so why is this study interesting?

It’s true that we have known for a long time that being short is associated with poverty, almost certainly because poor nutrition in childhood stunts growth. But the relationship between fatness and poverty is more nuanced.

In the not too distant past being thin was associated with poverty, and being overweight with wealth because people with more money were able to eat more. However, in the past few generations, in developed countries, that association has reversed. As we have moved to a world where calorie-dense food is readily and cheaply available, and life has become more sedentary, lower standards of living are associated with higher BMIs. But in this study we wanted to answer questions about causality rather than associations, which is why we turned to genetics.

You can’t change your genes

Associations between genes and human traits are likely to be cause not consequence. We can make this statement because your genes don’t change.

A disease can’t change your DNA sequence, but your DNA sequence can influence your chances of developing a disease, growing more, or your vulnerability to obesity. Once your father’s sperm has fertilised your mother’s egg, you are stuck with those two copies of the human genome and with some exceptions, such as in cancer cells, those two DNA sequences change very little during our lifetimes.

The different environments we encounter, the lifestyle choices we make, and the diseases we develop do not change the DNA sequences we inherit from our parents – to be clear, we are not discussing epigenetics here, where the environment can change how genes activate and deactivate.

Shorter men and heavier women are poorer

We used demographic and genetic data from 120,000 people (aged between 40 and 70) in the UK Biobank. The study used 400 genetic variants that are associated with height, and 70 associated with BMI, together with actual height and weight, to ask whether or not shorter stature or higher BMI could lead to lower chances in life – as measured by information the participants provided about their lives.

Having analysed the data, we found that men who were 7.5cm shorter, for no other reason than their genes, on average earned £1,500 a year less than their taller counterparts. Meanwhile, women who were 6.3kg heavier, for no other reason than their genes, on average earned £1,500 a year less than the lighter women of the same height.

It’s important to note that these are estimates and averages – short men and heavier women can, and do, succeed in life. Instead, it shows that across the population overweight women and shorter men are, on average, slightly worse off.

Short men can do well in life.
Featureflash /

What are the implications?

We now need to understand the factors that lead people who are overweight or short to lower standards of living. Is the link down to low self-esteem or depression, for example? Or is it more to do with discrimination?

In a world where we are obsessed with body image, are employers biased? And do we need to pay more attention to potential unconscious biases in order not to unfairly discriminate against people who are shorter (especially men) or overweight (especially women)?

More studies are needed using data from other birth cohorts – the UK Biobank is biased towards thinner people and wealthier people because they had to actively participate in a study about health and this bias may have affected the results (that is, made the associations slightly weaker).

The study was also limited to people born between 1935 and 1971 and so the effects may no longer exist in younger adults today. It will be interesting to study the effects in young adults – it may be that the higher levels of obesity would exacerbate the problem, or it may be that society is far more accepting of fatter people and that factors such as discrimination and social esteem, if they were key to this data, are less important in younger generations.

The study provides a much needed advance in understanding a classic chicken or egg problem. But something about having a higher BMI as a woman, and shorter height as a man, does lead to being worse off in life.

The Conversation

Timothy Frayling, , University of Exeter and Jessica Tyrrell, Research fellow, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Leonardo DiCaprio Oscar’s speech gets good marks for climate science

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar acceptance speech calling for action on climate change has received a lot of attention. Celebrities who are passionate about stopping climate change often quote science, but this can be risky for a non-expert when it’s such a complex topic, and some carry it off better than others.

So, how did Leo DiCaprio do? Asks Professor Richard Betts is Chair in Climate Impacts at the University of Exeter.

Leonardo DiCaprio - image courtesy of shutterstock

Leonardo DiCaprio – image courtesy of shutterstock

I’ve taken a close look at the part of his speech that focussed on climate change, and I think he did rather well. Not counting the phrases which are his personal opinion on how to respond, he makes ten statements that relate to at least some extent on science. Since I’m used to marking students’ work, I’ve taken the liberty of awarding him points for each statement…. Let’s see how he did….

“Making The Revenant was about man’s relationship to the natural world. A world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history.”

A good start. 2015 was very clearly the hottest year in all the datasets of global average surface temperature, by a long way. It was not the hottest year in the whole 4.5 billion year history of the Earth, but Leo was careful to say “recorded history”. It’s the hottest since we started actively measuring temperatures.

[One mark]

“Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow.”

Hmmm. Personally I’d have stayed well away from this example. It’s perfectly true that northern hemisphere snow cover has been in decline for some decades, but linking specific weather events or even individual seasons to long-term climate change is quite involved.

There are an increasing number of studies that look at the changing probabilities of particular weather events or extreme seasons, so in some cases we are able to make links with climate change, but I’m not aware of a specific study for the winter of 2014/15 in Western Canada yet.

It may be possible to argue the toss over this, but I’m going to be strict and withhold a mark here – sorry Leo! But don’t worry, you still have chance to redeem yourself….

[No mark]

“Climate change is real.”

Yes, absolutely. I assume he means human-caused climate change. The greenhouse effect is without doubt a real thing, increase carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will therefore cause warming, and the increase in carbon dioxide is definitely caused by humans.

There is no serious disputing of these facts, even from climate sceptics (at least, not the ones who have looked into it properly). The latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was that it is: “Extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

[One mark]

“It is happening right now.”

Yep. Temperatures have been rising around the world, other signs of warming are also apparent. Many glaciers are shrinking, sea levels are rising (both due to melting land ice and expansion of water as it warms), and Arctic sea ice is in decline. Although Antarctic sea ice has increased, this is still less than the loss in the Arctic.

Signs of the onset of spring, such as flowers blooming, trees coming in to leaf, birds migrating and eggs hatching, are on the whole occurring earlier in the year than several decades ago.

Some (but not all) types of extreme weather event are becoming more frequent or severe, and this may well extend to other extremes in coming decades.

The average rate of warming at the surface did slow temporarily for a few years, but while there is an interesting academic debate over this ‘hiatus’ or ‘slowdown’, this does not affect the big picture because the long-term heating up of the climate system is still ongoing.

So yes, there is overwhelming evidence that climate change is happening.

[One mark] 

“It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species.”

There’s a lot to unpick here, and it depends to some extent on what he means by ‘threat’ – does he mean a threat of impacts that are unpleasant but not actually life-threatening, or is he going further than that and implying a threat to the actual survival of our species?

If the latter then I would not agree – I don’t see convincing evidence that the entire human race is going to be wiped out by climate change any time soon. Having said that, inexorable warming could ultimately take temperatures past tolerable limits in some areas. One climate modelling study suggested that the ‘wet bulb temperature’ (which factors in humidity) could eventually exceed a proposed human body tolerance limit of 35°C across wide regions of the world – if the planet warmed by 12°C. This is not at all likely this century, and is at the upper end of what might be reached in a couple of centuries, if fossil fuels are burned at high rates and the climate responds as fast as is thought plausibly possible. So, it’s not the most likely outcome, and won’t happen soon, but it can’t be ruled out for the longer term.

However, even if the ‘urgent threat’ is not actually to everyone’s life, there is no doubt that everyone on the planet is increasingly at risk of being affected in some way, either directly or indirectly. Direct effects could include risks to local food or water security, or loss of homes due to coastal flooding from sea level rise. Those who do not experience these could still be affected indirectly, through shocks to the economy or pressures of migration.

So yes, I do agree that every member of our species may see some impact of climate change. Since it’s not really clear what DiCaprio means, I’m going to be strict again and award half a mark instead of a whole one.

[Half a mark] 

“And we need to work collectively together.”

[Not a science point]

“And stop procrastinating.”

Fair point. Scientific research supports the view that the longer the delay in reducing global emissions, the harder it will be to avoid the risk of severe impacts.

[One mark]

“We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters, but who speak for all of humanity.”

[Not a science point]

“For the indigenous people of the world.”

Indigenous ways of life are often dependent on particular aspects of the local environment, and in many cases these are threatened by a changing climate, especially in cold regions.

[One mark]

“For the billions and billions of underprivileged people out there who would be most affected by this.”

Poorer people, communities and nations do often tend to be more vulnerable to environmental changes, having less capacity to adapt (eg, less able to afford expensive sea defences). Similarly they are often more vulnerable to extreme weather and its consequences, not having such resilient infrastructure and buildings for shelter, or well-established early warning systems. Moreover, crop yields in tropical regions are expected to be hardest hit, and this is where many developing countries are.

I’m not so sure about the ‘billions and billions’, – with a world population of seven billion, rising to nine or 10 billion by mid-century, that doesn’t leave much room for ‘billions and billions’ who are ‘most affected’ while others are less affected – but I’m possibly verging on the pedantic here so won’t labour this point!

[One mark]

“For our children’s children.”

This is a good way of communicating the timescale of the most severe impacts. While climate change is already happening, the highest impacts are still some way off (although we may become irreversibly committed to them soon).

In particular, sea level rise takes a long while to happen to the full, as it takes time for huge bodies of ice to melt and for heat to penetrate to the ocean depths to warm and expand the deep water. Those of us alive today may well not see the worst effects, but the potentially huge impacts in the early part of the next century would be within the life expectancy of our grandchildren.

[One mark]

“And for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed.”

[not a science point]

“I thank you all for this amazing award tonight. Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted.”

Sandwiched between two bits of awards ceremony-speak, ‘not taking this planet for granted’ is a very good point. Earth is the only planet in our solar system suitable and comfortable for human life, and even then it has gone through some very large changes in climate in its history.
Although such changes have happened before, humans were not around then, and there is no doubt that if major changes were to happen again, they could cause major upheavals to our civilisation.

By tinkering with a system that we don’t yet fully understand, it could be us that makes something major happen if we’re not careful. While we should not panic, we should not be complacent either. We should not take it for granted that the climate will remain within the bounds that we are used to, or that it will change gradually enough for us to keep up.

[One mark]

So for an overall mark, I give Leonardo DiCaprio 8.5 out of 10.

Still a bit of room for improvement, but overall that’s pretty good I think ….and I suspect much more than Leo would give me for my acting skills!!

Professor Richard Betts was a lead author on the IPCC’s Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports, and leads a major EU-funded international climate research project called High-End cLimate Impacts and eXtremes (HELIX).  

This post is associated with Professor Betts’s presentation at the Weather, Art and Music festival hosted by the University of Exeter on 5th March 2016


When should doctors gain full registration with the General Medical Council?

Karen Mattick is a Professor of Medical Education, Co-Lead for the Centre for Research in Professional Learning at the University of Exeter, and Director of the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice. She has over twelve years’ experience as a medical education researcher and educator. He she ask when junior doctors should gain full registration with the GMC…?

Having been heavily involved in establishing and developing successful UK Medical Schools, we believe more can still be done to prepare and support medical students in the transition to becoming junior doctors and encourage them to stay working as doctors in the UK.

Currently only 70 per cent of junior doctors feel they were well prepared for their first junior doctor role. And, in the UK, we are fast losing doctors in some areas of medicine through emigration, career breaks and early retirement, sometimes through mental ill-health.  Change is needed – but it must be the right kind of change, undertaken for the right reasons.

So what would the right kind of change look like? For us, this is about providing the best possible education and support to medical students and junior doctors, in order to achieve the best possible patient care.

With this in mind, as a team of academics from Cardiff, Exeter, Dundee and Belfast researching the preparedness of graduates for medical practice, we explored the implications of a recommendation made by an independent review of medical education, to award full registration for graduates to practise medicine as soon as they leave medical school.  This is a year earlier than the current point of registration, which includes a further ‘hands-on’ placement year. Our research team wanted to provide evidence to probe this recommendation and the ramifications it could have for education and patient care in the UK.

We conducted interviews with 185 doctors, health professionals and patients, and heard that the implications were far-reaching. Even if the graduation at registration recommendation is not adopted, it is clear that we can do more to adapt to a changing healthcare environment and respond to some of the challenges the sector faces, simply as best practice to support trainee doctors in a particularly demanding period in their careers.

At the moment, medical schools remain responsible for aspects of doctors’ training in the first year of practice. In this period new graduates receive provisional GMC registration, meaning they can only practice under close supervision and with some restrictions. Around 40 per cent of these junior doctors are employed by NHS Trusts that are remote from their medical school, potentially hundreds of miles away. They are both physically and psychologically far removed from Medical School. This can lead to fragmentation of support during a critical phase of training.

In the current system, doctors apply for full GMC registration only after completing this first year of practice. It takes at least four further years (sometimes much longer depending on specialty) for doctors to complete training and become independent practitioners.

Until they are fully registered, junior doctors cannot usually work abroad or take up temporary locum work.  But, with increasing numbers of UK graduates and applications from eligible European and International medical graduates, the Foundation Programme has been oversubscribed since 2011.

Suitable UK medical school graduates now regularly fail to secure Foundation Programme Year 1 (F1) jobs on the first pass and are put on a reserve list to await a place. Graduates without an F1 job have limited opportunities to progress their medical career in the UK, risking graduates leaving medicine or moving abroad to train. Heart-breaking and highly political headlines of talented students who have worked hard for years, in a degree heavily subsidised by the taxpayer, being forced into alternative careers, are now a very real possibility.

Changing the point of registration would help to address concerns about fragmentation of support and could potentially help with oversubscription but it would introduce other concerns. Provisional registration provides a ‘safety net’ year, in which new doctors can find their feet under close supervision and senior doctors can identify struggling trainees. Although the daily practice of newly qualified doctors might not change, full registration would imply higher expectations from the outset, making the transition even more daunting.

Our interviewees also raised concerns about medical schools making recommendations about full registration. Medical students are generally not embedded within the multidisciplinary healthcare teams their later employment will demand. They can undertake limited activities, which makes it difficult to assess their capabilities in clinical practice and professionalism in the workplace with confidence. Some felt that medical schools were reluctant to fail underperforming students and that universities were more focussed on producing graduates than on patient safety.

One surprise in our data was that participants did not raise the implications for four-year graduate entry medicine programmes, currently run by some medical schools alongside the standard five years for non-graduates. The implications for these programmes are profound, however, since European legislation requires a minimum duration of basic medical training of five years and 5,500 hours. Graduate entry programmes currently use the F1 year towards this count so, unless aspects of a first degree could be counted, these programmes might become untenable.

By thinking through the implications of a future change to the timing of registration, we have highlighted improvements that can be made to medical education. At a time when the training of doctors is under intense scrutiny, we hope this evidence will help shape the future by providing earlier practical experience to students, which would be beneficial right now for medical students, trainees and patients.